With our post yesterday, we brought you word of a new brand and their inaugural watch, out of Estonia. Fortunately for us (and you) this also coincides with our efforts to start putting some more questions to the brands we work with. With that, let’s get into the latest installment of our series, “Interview with a Watch Maker.” Today, we’re talking with Tõnis Leissoo of Estonia 1918.
WristWatchReview (WWR): What is your history with wristwatches?
Tõnis Leissoo: I’ve been into wristwatches, especially mechanical watches, ever since I can remember. I believe it started when I was about 6 years old and got a chance to play around with my grandfathers’ vintage watch collection. On special occasions I was even allowed to wear them. Soon after that, I got my first own wristwatch that was a gift from my father. Of course, it was the classic Casio F-91W. I had many electronic and quartz watches before I could finally afford real Swiss Manuals.
The first manual I got was Tag Heuer Aquaracer 500m with a Caliber 5 (which is actually ETA-2824). After having this Tag, I was hooked. I’m always looking what to choose next and my collection have been growing since then. The last wristwatch which I received was my Zenith Pilot Type 20 in bronze. But now I’m also into vintage and historic watches and even pocket watches. I just got a very nice Swiss Made Pocketwatch with enamel dial. Both, the Zenith and the pocket watch are something that can describe well my current taste in watches. The taste is in constant development.
WWR: Why is now the right time to become a watchmaker?
Tõnis Leissoo: I’m actually a lifelong IT-person. Most of my achievements have been digital and very temporary. Besides mentoring my team members, of course. The 100th Anniversary of Estonia (the country where I’m from) is approaching and I wanted to make something with my hands that would last longer than me and give it to my people. I started making the watch about 2 years ago. It was a great beginning of a journey that I will definitely continue for as long as I can.
WWR: Before you became a watchmaker, what was your intended career path in life? How did you come to watch making?
Tõnis Leissoo: I started by modifying my existing watches. At first I changed their straps and bracelets. Then I polished some, brushed others. Then I modified the dials of some. Changed mineral crystal to sapphire. Finally I designed my own dial for one of my watches. After showing it to some of my friends they said to me: “Soon, you will design and make an entire watch!” I took it as a challenge and started designing an entire watch.
WWR: Why this watch?
Tõnis Leissoo: It’s something very closely related to me. I like simple, legible, large, masculine watches with leather straps. Like the Zenith I mentioned before. I’ve had too many divers and sport chronographs. Once you’ve had enough of the little bells and whistles you ask for something simple and pure. It might also be related to my age and the fact that I’m more into classic cars as well. Things with a story behind them. Things that will talk for themselves. Wõitleja (freedom fighter) watch is very closely related to me and I wanted to have it as a connection between the owner and beautiful small country of Estonia.
WWR: What’s been the biggest manufacturing or engineering challenge you faced so far?
Tõnis Leissoo: The biggest challenge was to make it look like a large watch but actually be the most comfortable watch I’ve ever had. It had to have very thin edges and bezel and it couldn’t be too thick and too heavy. I had to make lot of prototypes before I got it right and it felt good on the wrist. Actually there are some very basic things a watch designer should follow to make the watch as comfortable as possible.
First: it shouldn’t be too heavy. It means you should not have too much metal. Second: the lugs should be as round as possible. Wõitleja has very round lugs. Third: the lugs have to be as close to the skin as possible and the cap between the strap and your hand should be very small. Fourth: the strap should be thin and even better, the strap should be Nato style, because then the caseback of the watch will not touch your skin and your skin will not start to sweat. Fifth: the case of the watch should be as thin as possible and it should fit below long sleeves.
WWR: Where do you think the industry is moving?
Tõnis Leissoo: They’re saying the industry is in trouble. I think it’s great that it’s in trouble. That’s the time when the market is being cleared out. Every industry should be self-regulating. If someone tries to overregulate an industry then it will definitely end up with crisis. That’s how it’s always been. One sad thing about the watch industry is that people don’t care where the watch was made and who made it. They care more about the looks of the watch but they don’t care if the design is very unique or if the watch is made in Switzerland or China. In some ways it’s a good thing, we can already see the decrease of Swiss watch prices and that ETA opened up their movements again for other brands outside the Swatch Group.
WWR: Where do you fit within that future?
Tõnis Leissoo: The watches of Estonia 1918 will be an alternative to fully Swiss Made watches and fully Chinese Made watches with an approach of its own. Estonian design is very closely related to Scandinavian design but it’s not Bauhaus. It’s very close to the nature and it’s authentic. It doesn’t try to be something else.
WWR: How do online communities play a part in that?
Tõnis Leissoo: Online communities are the most important factors for startup watchmakers. Communities will pretty much decide whether your brand and design will be accepted or not. Small and individual watchmakers are not depending on retailers and boutiques. They depend only on the communities and social networks.
WWR: What are you doing to develop a strong community feedback loop? How does that community feedback change the watch business?
Tõnis Leissoo: I try to be as open as possible about everything related to my watches. Where they were made, who designed them, what parts they include and why. Communities don’t like the sales talk – they like pure honesty. Basically, communities are making watchmakers more transparent and honest about their products. There will be less retailers and more one-brand stores and more direct sales from the internet.
WWR: How do you define your ideal consumer? Who is it, in your mind, that wears your brand’s watch?
Tõnis Leissoo: My ideal customer is an actual person. He’s Alex from New York. He’s 50+ years old, he’s originally from Estonia and the most important part is that his father fought on the Armored Train No.1 in the Estonian War of Independence. For him, the year 1918 on the dial means a lot. That’s about the ideal customer but in general I’ve had a lot of different types of customers. From different age groups and also gender
WWR: What is it that defines your watch? What characteristics are identifiably “Estonia 1918″?
Tõnis Leissoo: Natural, masculine, simple, legible, functional, comfortable design made in very small quantities with Scandinavian precision and finished by hand.
WWR: Along that line of questioning, what are your guiding principles when making design choices?
Tõnis Leissoo: Keep it as simple as possible. Taking everything out what you can. Don’t over complicate and don’t try to solve pseudo problems.
WWR: How do you think about design and its role in your life?
Tõnis Leissoo: I didn’t learn design in university but I learn design every day. I have a long list of design portals that I visit every day. I like solving the design problems in my head. I have designed quite a bit of everyday items on paper. Such as a lamp, eyeglasses, teapot, chair, ice scraper and many more. But watches are not just a mere design items, they consist of art combined with design and engineering. Watch design was one of the longest challenges I’ve had in my life because it last about 2 years once I decided that the timepiece is ready.
WWR: What would the crowning lifetime achievement be for you and your brand as a company?
Tõnis Leissoo: I will give my best that it will last longer than me.